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Why I Went to an Ultra-Nationalist Football Hooligan March in Poland

VICE's new documentary, Rise of the Right, focuses on Warsaw's Independence Day march and explores why political nationalism is still fervent in Poland. Here, host Joe Bish discusses what made him want to see the demonstration for himself.

by Joe Bish
29 March 2016, 9:32am

The author at the Independence Day march in Warsaw, Poland

I speak for plenty of people here in the UK when I say I don't know enough about Poland. To many Brits, the nation has become little more then a crass punchline about labour migration, rolled out week after week on various topical panel shows.

We are vaguely aware that the country has seen 100 years of atrocities on its home soil, from its deadly occupation by Nazi Germany during the Second World War – in which its capital city was completely destroyed – to the subsequent Soviet occupation, which ended in 1989.

But we know less about the ways the country has shown resilience. During the global financial crisis, Poland was the only European nation whose GDP actually grew. It is now the eighth largest economy in Europe, according to the World Bank. In 2011, the Polish-born, former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, claimed: "Poland is enjoying the best period in its history."

However, while Poland is enjoying positive economic fortunes, politically, things aren't so rosy; far-right extremism still plays a major part in political discourse.

Polish Independence Day falls on the 11th of November every year, and to mark it, tens of thousands of Poles take to the streets of Warsaw for a nationalist march. In previous years the event has descended into near total anarchy, usually as a result of violent football fans – or "ultras" – who turn up to the march in packs, wearing their own colours, like the grand meeting at the start of The Warriors. During the demonstration these rival factions hold a truce with one another: all battles are put to the side for one day so the ultras – who consider themselves the front line of Poland's defence against invaders (read: refugees and Islam) – can march together in a spectacular display of nationalist pride.

A team notorious for its football violence, Widzew, based in Poland's third largest city Łódź, allowed us to follow them as they prepared for the march. Łódź had a large textiles industry during the socialist era, but has since fallen into disrepair, with stark poverty affecting some areas. In some of the most deprived areas, violent and anti-Semitic football graffiti is ubiquitous. The anger there appears to come from three factors: a hatred of Islam, the constant perceived threat to Polish culture and society, and a dissatisfaction with the government.

The marches normally turn violent, because while the football fans have agreed to a truce, fights break out between marchers and the police, who are routinely described by protesters as the agitators. However, this year's march happened under slightly different circumstances.

In the past, marchers aimed their disdain at the centre-right Civic Platform Party, previously the biggest party in Polish parliament. But following elections in November of 2015, the right-wing, socially conservative Law and Justice Party – which is more sympathetic to the views of the marchers (read: they're not keen on Islam or immigration either) – took power.

So what effect will the reign of this new government have? What will this famously pugilistic march be like once the people on it have had one of their gripes sated? That's what we went to Poland to find out.

While filming our new documentary Rise Of The Right, I discovered a nation still finding its voice after years and years of cataclysmic control and abuse, fearful about being shaped and morphed once again, this time by radical Islam.

@joe_bish

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